Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Easter Island

Like many children of my generation, I had the book, The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a tree who loves a little boy, and gives him apples and provides him with hours of climbing fun. As he gets older, though, he doesn’t just take apples, but lumber to build a house, and a boat, until the tree, who has lovingly given him all this, is nothing but a stump. In the end, the boy, now an old man, looks only for a place to sit, and the tree stump provides him with that. And she is happy.

Even as a kid I found it creepy, a bit of a warning to kids Not To Have Kids. They will take and take and you will be left nothing but a stump. They will think nothing of it, even. The boy thinks nothing of cutting down the tree, merely the short-term benefit he will gain.

The Giving Tree was published in 1964, just two years after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Silent Spring was a wakeup call that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, lent momentum to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and was a catalyst for the formation of an environmental movement that still exists today. I would not be at all surprised to find that Shel Silverstein was influenced in part by Silent Spring. Humanity takes and takes, nature gives until there is nothing left to give.

There are many in the world who think that it is humankinds right, maybe even destiny, to take from nature, to use the resources that are available to the fullest. Those people claim that human actions do not make a difference to the biology of the Earth. Maybe it is all God’s plan; maybe nature will recover as if nothing happened. How can we be sure?

My father doesn't believe that ecological conservation is a reasonable cause. He would tell me it was ridiculous. He would tell me that climate change was a myth, or that it was only part of the normal changes the planet goes through, and it was a waste of time to try to recycle or reduce litter or greenhouse gases. I told him that it was possible he was right, but what possible harm could there be in making the world a more beautiful place? What could possibly be gained by littering the planet with garbage? And think of all we lose by leaving the world a grayer, dirtier place for the next generations.

History shows us a different story, if we choose to listen.

When Europeans first happened upon Easter Island (on an Easter Sunday, hence the name), they discovered an island very unlike the other islands of the South Pacific. Green and grassy, but oddly treeless, the island bristled with massive stone figures, crouching men with huge heads and hollow eye sockets. Stunning and confusing, the island shows up in many books, magazines, and is generally discussed as being a “mystery”. How did these massive sculptures come to be erected, which logically should require rope and lumber, both of which are totally lacking on Easter? There were for many years some interesting theories, including space aliens and super-lost Vikings.

It’s not magic or alien technology. They did use lumber from trees. Moving the giant figures used many trees: the trees which are no longer there.

Research shows the island had at one time been as forested as its neighbors. One theory suggests that rats, stowaways on the boats of the Polynesians who settled Easter Island, ate the trees, leading to the deforestation. Another theory, espoused in the book Collapse, how societies choose to fail, by Jared Diamond, suggests that the statues themselves are the reason for the lack of trees. It was a passion, those sculptures. The statues became bigger and bigger, and were placed on large platforms, then had red stone hats balanced on top. Like a stone Keeping-Up-With-the-Joneses competition, he suggests tribal leaders sought to one-up each other. And as they strove to produce the largest and grandest sculptures, they required more trees, more resources, until there were no more trees. And once there were no trees there was no way to move the stone figures to their destinations, and to stand them up. Half-finished figures remain in the quarry, never to be completed.

Diamond asks, “what went through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”  Did he think, “there must be trees elsewhere, this isn’t the last one”? The gods will provide. We must have this tree for the rituals to succeed. I’m just following orders. Those who say there are no more trees are wrong. I am getting paid for this tree, and with that I will feed my family. We cannot know, since that person is long gone and left no story, leaving only the monolithic Easter Island sculptures.

The take away I got from Collapse, from stories which seem as different as those of the Norse settlement of Greenland and the recent genocide in Rwanda, is that societies collapse when they (when WE) fail to adapt to dwindling resources. It is easy to look at the deforestation of Easter Island and think that we would have done differently, that the trees were more important than stone figures. But what is different today? Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, humans are all on this island Earth, using up food, fuel, and land with a narrow intensity. When the resources here are gone they will be totally gone. There is no other island we can migrate to, no other world waiting for us a few days canoe ride away.

The Earth is our island, our life boat, and once we have cut down the last tree, polluted the last well, and burned the last fossil fuel, then what? Will we settle for a less beautiful life, a life with less, and be content? Will we say this is as it always was and is meant to be?

Earth Day, April 22nd, is a day for education and affirmation of our commitment to helping, not harming, the environment. Started in 1970 in response to a California oil spill, it is now a reminder for us to lessen our impact on the planet. 

Earth Day was inaugurated as a day for the people of the world to celebrate and honor the planet we all inhabit. Ecological issues were quite popular, though not new. There was a growing awareness of the planet not as an inert and static stone, but as a living organism, the interactions of plants, animals, and minerals coming together and working in synchronicity. And humans are part of that organism or at the most outside, the stewards of the planet. As UUs we accept that we are part of the interconnectedness of life. When we harm the life of this planet we harm ourselves.

The UUI Green Team works on projects which we can, as part of the church community and neighborhood as well as citizen of our city, make a difference. The solar panels on the Cottage reduce our dependence on the electric grid, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. The lights in the sanctuary have been changed to LED, which not only reduces the waste of changing light bulbs frequently, but also cuts our cooling costs in summer, as the lights generate less heat.  The neighborhood cleanup, removing trash from the alleys of Butler-Tarkington, together with residents of our church community, removes waste of all kinds from our neighborhood and encourages us all to be more conscientious about our trash. These are small, local projects, but like the trees of Easter Island it is each small act which makes ripples, spreading outward and reverberating through our lives and culture.

Outside of the church, there is plenty we can do. The Earth Day Network site suggests actions to reduce our carbon footprint, a catchword for how much of Earth resources we use. I took their playful quiz, and it suggests a few simple actions: fewer meals that are meat-based, since raising meat animals uses more resources than vegetables, more local foods to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in transportation, and choosing foods that require less packaging. We can all take those simple steps.

Being Earth-conscious can also be economical. Use mass-transit or carpooling whenever possible, or ride a bicycle or walk. Buy in bulk, in ways which reduce both the number of trips you make to shop and the packaging. Reuse packaging and storage when possible. When house-shopping we chose to live in a neighborhood where many of the resources we use, restaurants, library, shops, parks, are walking distance. In modern cities, that isn’t always possible, but small choices can have long reaching impacts. Change your lighting to LED or CFLs. Install a solar panel. I’m sure you know of a few things you could do.

I know it can be frustrating, too. I don’t currently have the income to afford a car with better gas mileage, or a hybrid electric. I don’t work close enough to home to ride a bike to work, and there are no buses that would get me there in a timely way. I sadly depend on easy too often. I could have been that tree-cutter on Easter Island, cutting down the tree to pay for my family’s meal or because it was the easiest and fastest way to get the job done. I admit it, I’m addicted to our Western, all-American lifestyle. Some of us take running water, electricity, and cars for granted, as if those are rights protected by the Constitution. They are not, they are luxuries to most of the world, and should be treated as such by those of us lucky enough to have them.

I’m not suggesting that we have to change everything at once. I don’t know about you and your family, but I’m sure if I suggested we go vegetarian and sell the van and only use a bike or bus there would be a mutiny in my household. But I can certainly institute a Meatless Monday meal. We can make one of our family downtown museum trips by bus or bike instead of car. I invite you this week to think of one action you and your household can take to change your impact on the Earth, one thing to preserve nature as it is now, instead of nature in a meaner and reduced state. Perhaps you can raise your own chickens or a garden. Perhaps you will join our Green Team. Perhaps you can find greater ways to help the planet than I can even imagine. If you do, please let us know. Let’s not be that person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island. Let us celebrate the Earth. After all, it is the only one we have.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I don't believe in Bakersfield

Transcript of sermon delivered on August 3, 2014, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis.

When I first began my adventures in UU, seven plus years ago, I heard a joke, what do you get if you cross a UU with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason. I told my minister the joke, and he suggested a new punchline: someone who knocks on your door and asks “what do YOU believe?”

People outside UU often don’t know what to make of Unitarian Universalism, but I’ve still heard them say what we don’t believe.  Apparently, according to many people outside UU, UUs don’t believe in God. My daughter told me that her classmate told her that after first asking if she was Christian or Jewish, and telling her friend she was a UU. I responded that SOME UUs believe in God, some do not. Some believe in many gods. Personally, I don’t believe in a white man named God, sitting on a cloud, handing out VIP passes like Halloween treats, which is what I think those other people are talking about… maybe. I don’t believe in much that I can’t see, test, feel, understand. I tend to be an empiricist about most things.

For example, I don’t believe that Hell is an afterlife of eternal suffering. I know Hell to be a town north of Gdansk. I was on a train bound for Hell, but I disembarked in Krakow.

I don’t believe in Atlantis, conspiracy birther theories, extraterrestrial abductions, or the town of Bakersfield.

If you drive north from Los Angeles on the 5, you climb up the Tejon Pass through the Tehachapi Mountains, and come down the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley. As you reach the bottom of the Grapevine, there are signs, Bakersfield, next 5 exits, and point to the East. And you look to the East, and see … Nothing. A vast expanse of bare dusty brown valley. I came to the conclusion that there is no town of Bakersfield, that it’s some kind of California practical joke.

A friend found this claim of mine, not to believe in Bakersfield, utterly baffling. “how can you not believe in it? I can show it to you on a map!” I pointed out that hundreds of years ago maps were published with dragons on them and other apocryphal creatures and places. Mapquest frequently tells me to exit the freeway at exits that don’t exist.  Being on a map doesn’t make it REAL.  This is based upon my superficial and unresearched experience, not upon data from outside sources. Still, my experiences count for something, right?

But my belief, or unbelief, aside, it doesn’t affect the world at large. The town of Bakersfield, real or not, is not affected by my lack of belief in it. And I don’t insist on the world adhering to my view. I do not lobby congress to deny Bakersfield city-hood, or remove its representatives from power. Because I also believe that faith, belief, is a personal matter, not something I force on others.  This country was founded upon freedom of religion, but more and more that freedom seems to be a freedom as long as your religion is mainstream.

In June, the US Supreme Court, in it’s 5 to 4 decision on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, allowed two closely-held companies to opt out of parts of health coverage because, as the majority opinion stated, the owners of the companies “sincerely believe” that some forms of birth control are actually abortifacients, that they cause an abortion. Even though the medical science contradicts this belief, “sincere belief” is apparently enough to allow a company to ignore a federal mandate to provide a certain minimum level of health care to all its employees. Even though not all its employees have the same value system or beliefs, the beliefs of the employer are the factor here.

Peter Morales, president of Unitarian Universalist of America, our parent organization, said, of this decision, “I am deeply concerned by the growing rights granted to corporations by this decision and others of this Court and our Congress. I am also deeply concerned by the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.”

This ruling allows companies to impose their moral views on their employees, and shelter their discriminatory views under the name of religious freedom.  There are religions that object to the use of certain medical procedures, like blood transfusions by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists and several smaller Christian denominations prefer the use of prayer to standard medical procedure. What if you work for a company owned by devout Muslims of Jews? In some places the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine is made with pork-derived gelatin. Can your employers restrict the vaccination of employees children on the grounds of religious freedom, even if those employees are not themselves Muslim or Jewish? Already, there are outbreaks of Measles and Mumps across America because some people believe, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, that the MMR causes autism. If we bring a religious argument into play, there will be more outbreaks as our herd immunity is further undermined.

As soon as that decision was handed down, I knew it would lead to more and more ridiculous suits where the only requirement, the only test, was whether the plaintiffs sincerely believed that they were in the right. Science be damned! Empiricism and testable facts went right out the window with that decision.  If you can deny testable science, ignore it completely, and have your views given credence in a court of law, then what about evolution in schools? How can you support any kind of science or use it as the basis of a judgment if the only thing that your opponent need have is sincerity? What we believe is important, especially if we are determined to impose our personal beliefs on other people.

A couple of weeks ago David Jackoway gave a sermon here about our jigsaw puzzle faith, how UUs believe a wide range of things, and yet we don’t talk about those things too often. My mission here isn’t to create a hierarchy of faith from my position here behind the lectern. I’m not here to tell you how to believe, but to take you with me on a spiritual and philosophical journey. I’m not here to be the Hobby Lobby employer, because this is a place where all spiritual paths are welcomed and respected, because they all lead us here, to where we can be together, in all our differences. You may not choose the same ways to serve our community and world as I choose, but you serve. You may not see the world as I see it, but you see it, you live in it, and we all of us seek to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Faith is a wonderful, powerful tool. Faith builds cities, faith keeps us working toward the future, faith holds our lives and communities together. What I truly believe, and will speak from this position, is this:

I believe in you, all of you in this community. I believe in you to listen to others, to make actions based on careful consideration of the facts and what will be help our community, our city, our country, our world, in the best way we can. I believe that with small actions, we can change the world. I believe that people are more important than companies, that clean energy is a necessity, that access to healthcare should be a universal right, that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. And if we can conquer that fear in ourselves, we can show other people the way to love, also.

And I have faith in you. I hope you have that same faith in me.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Feminist Mother

This is the text of the sermon delivered at  Unitarian Universalist of Indianapolis, May 18, 2014

Sojourner Truth
Ain't I A Woman?
Delivered 1851
Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio 
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Those who know me on Facebook know I have an addiction to quizzes. I have a hard time not taking them and posting my results. I am, apparently, a hipster parent, and if I were a mythical creature I would be a dragon. Any quizzes, even the ones like “which Rap Star are you?” So when I saw the quiz labeled “are you a bad feminist” I’m sure you realize I HAD to take it.  Had to. And I was more annoyed by that quiz that I was about anything that whole week. Because my results were that I am a “problematic” feminist. In other words I’m not feminist enough for “some” feminists in this country. Because I answered yes to questions like “do you wear makeup?” and “do you shave your legs” and no to questions like “have you ever done roller derby.” Really? I’d be a better feminist if I were a hairy legged roller derby player? I’d be the worst roller derby player ever, but that would determine my politics? (My next quiz should probably be “what would be your roller derby persona”)

How can I be a “bad” feminist? I believe in and support the right for all women to vote, to own property, to determine her role in life, to work. To be treated equally and fairly in the workplace and society at large. Is that asking too much, to be given equal status? Some people think so. They think Feminism is damaging the minds and souls of our children.  Feminists kill children, they emasculate men, and apparently are jack booted thugs, since they gets called Feminazis. According to author and Fox News guest Nick Adams, Feminism is even damaging National Security. That’s the next quiz I’d like to see, “how much are you personally damaging National Security?” Pretty sure that one would get me on an NSA watch list.

Some people are so threatened by the idea of women having any rights in society they will go to horrifying extremes. These are the people who still have women in a powerless position, and want to keep them there.  This past spring, in West Africa, a group calling itself Boko Haram, which translates to “Western Education is Forbidden”, has famously kidnapped over 200 girls, ages sixteen to eighteen, and still holds them. Whether they are rescued or released or never get away from their captors, Boko Haram has at the very least disrupted their educations and their lives. That there has not been more done towards securing their return is a shame to all who have the power to do so, and do not.

Not even two years ago, a fifteen year old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by a Taliban soldier for having the temerity to speak out in defense of education for girls. This is a sign. A fifteen year old girl with a book is so terrifying to some men that they would try to kill her. She survived, and has become a figurehead for the movement to educate all children, all over the world.

Malala names her mother, Thorpekai, as the anchor of her family, the source of her strength. Her mother, who does not speak in interviews she attends with her daughter, who does not herself read, who never attended school supports her daughter’s right to an education.

I’m sure that Thorpekai wouldn’t call herself a Feminist, but she is.

Lest you think that an educated female population is only frightening to Muslim extremists, consider that there is a strong movement in America to give girls, and boys, incorrect information on basic reproductive health. In the hopes of preventing girls from engaging in sexual activity before marriage, Abstinence-only education teaches that condoms don’t work, birth control pills are a health risk, and only sluts use birth control anyway. Even more horrifying to me, they teach girls that their moral compass is somehow tied to their reproductive organs. Elizabeth Smart, the woman who at the age of 14 was abducted from her Salt Lake City home and repeatedly raped by her abductor, has publicly blamed abstinence only education for her not trying to escape. In her mind, having been raped, she had been spoiled, and no longer had any value as a person.

The abstinence-only movement has only led to increases in teen pregnancy in the states which used the method. That means more women, barely more than children, becoming mothers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day being signed in as a National Holiday in the U.S., at the same time that the Suffrage movement to gain women the vote was gaining traction. One hundred years of honoring mothers across the country. One hundred years of honoring the women who created us, who raised us, who cared for us, who didn’t leave us by the side of the road when we were being pains in the butt (thank you, mom, I appreciate that). One hundred years ago, those mothers could not vote in America, could not get birth control to delay or limit the number of children they had, they could be excluded from work based merely on gender, or fired from work for their marital status.

Things have changed a lot for mothers in our country. All women have the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to not BE property. We can file from divorce from an abusive marriage; we can demand equal pay, equal respect, equal rights. The battle for women’s rights in America is over, we’ve won. We can sit back on Mother’s Day and bask in our successes. We can be mothers and we can be working professionals, right? Feminism has done it all, so now it’s time for it to retire and go the way of the Suffrage Movement.

Last year Michelle Obama, Princeton alumni, lawyer, First Lady, and, like me, mother to two daughters, found herself under attack as being “A Feminist Nightmare” because she isn’t tackling “hard issues” of gender inequality as the First Lady. She apparently is a problematic Feminist as well, because she is spending too much time on her family and on issues of feeding children healthy food, instead of lobbying for women’s rights.

What about mother’s rights?

I never intended to be a stay at home mother. But when my first child was born I discovered how difficult it was to find reliable, affordable care for an infant. Nearly impossible. My spouse and I managed to work out a schedule between his full time but unconventional schedule and my full time academic teaching load that had one of home nearly all the time, and the two days a week both of us worked we hired a college student to look after our two month old. When we finally made it to the top of the wait list for a decent and reliable day care that would take infants I found out that my contract with the university would not be renewed. With only one income, the cost of the daycare would be a third of our annual salary. One third. More than our rent.

Unemployed and with a six month old baby, it was natural that I stayed home while also hunting for another job. But after a year of emotionally draining job search, and limited in the amount of research I could continue to produce, I decided to remove myself from the academic job market. That was 9 years ago.

I had it easy. I’m educated and middle class with secretarial and book keeping experience, and I knew that if I needed to work just to put food on the table, I could with relative ease get a job, any job, that would pay somewhat above minimum wage. Many women in this country do not have that luxury. I have a devoted spouse with a full-time job that provides health coverage. 65% of households below the poverty line are headed by single women. And for many of those women, daycare for small children is the largest obstacle. Daycare is very expensive, and though low-income families can get vouchers to pay for it, much of the daycare in our country is of low quality. Church-run or ministry daycares, which are common, don’t have to adhere to the strict standards of private daycare. Much daycare is provided under the table, by completely unlicensed providers.

And of those women who do work, who do manage to find decent care for their kids, what then? The media still loves to whip up the manufactured debate between working moms and stay at home moms. And it is manufactured.

Some would have us believe that staying home is a betrayal of Feminism, but how is this? Stay at home moms don’t just sit at home and eat bon-bons. Many are on school boards, and working on home businesses. They are learning new skills at school or raising livestock and running households. My daughters understand that I have multiple jobs, of which Mom is one. I’m also an artist and a marketing assistant, jobs which are rewarding in different ways. I’m lucky, I have an employer who is understanding and a job which allows me a great deal of flexibility in my hours, so I can be a stay at home mom and a working mom simultaneously. I’m glad I was able to stay home with them while they were younger, to play with them, to cuddle them. Now they are in school, I can still make an impact in their lives, but I can do so by being a foundation, as well as a role model.

I’m not a cupcake-making Pinterest mommy, keeping an immaculate home, making all organic meals, keeping bees, and gleefully embracing the New Domesticity, but so what if I were? It wouldn’t make me less a believer in the equality of women. The only thing that could damage my political beliefs is if I were to do something to actually put women’s equality on the chopping block, like trying to force women to marry, denying them access to education, giving blatantly wrong reproductive health information, or limiting access to child care and health care. Oddly, there are women in this country who think that women don’t deserve or need the gains of Feminism. Most of those have money and privilege, so they aren't worried about their own rights being denied, but they would limit the rights of women who are without power. They don’t see us as their sisters, but competitors for the scraps.  I bow out of the competition.

Some feminists criticize women who choose to stay home, as if this is a betrayal of feminism. The fact is, some women stay home, some work. Many, too many, don’t have the choice of whether or not to work. But what we do have the choice of is what we pass on to the next generation. We can choose to teach our children about the struggle that has gone on for women’s rights. Teach our daughters to be strong, to follow their vision, and not be afraid to ask for help from their sisters. We can teach our sons to respect all women, not just the ones who are “good girls”, to look past the surface and treat women as they would themselves want to be treated. To teach our children, both our sons and our daughters, that all people are deserving of love and grace.

When I look at my daughters, I want them to have more options. I find many of those options here, in this place, in the form of Unitarian Universalism.  Our youth participate in sex education that is real, factual, comprehensive information about respecting and protecting themselves and their future partners. No lies, no shame.

Our youth participate actively in helping the community, including a Habitat for Humanity project each year, to learn to help those less lucky than we. I want these things for my daughters, for your daughters and sons.

I want them to be able to build the world in their own image, the world they imagine it to be – just and beautiful. I want them to find people who love them completely and without reservation. Who believe in them. I want them to have the strength of vision to look into the future and make it come to us.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

8 Things about snow (that I had no idea about!)


I grew up in Los Angeles.  Snow was something that you heard about, saw in movies, and could see resting on the mountains on a clear day.  Sometimes you might drive up to Big Bear Lake and find an icy patch of snow, but that was about it.  Snow was something that closed roads, required chains on your cars, and I didn’t have a clue how anyone lived a normal life when they had snow on the ground for half the year.  Did people in Michigan just hibernate for half the year?  I thought it was cold when the temperatures got down to 40.  Once in awhile I was in cold places, like when I lived in London briefly, but left just as the snow started falling in early December, or when I visited my relatives in South Texas in winter of 1983/4 when the highs were in single digits, but rarely was there snow.


Then I married a Yankee, and the next thing I know we’re living in Indianapolis (to me, the Great White North, to him, not nearly as snowy and cold as his college town, Edinboro PA) and I’m living in a place where it snows every year!  Sometimes a lot of snow!  And I have learned a few things to share with other warm climate people:


  1. Snow is quiet.  After growing up with becoming aware of precipitation by the sound of it falling, snow is really sneaky.  You wake up and all is quiet, you go downstairs, make some caffeine, and look out the window and WHAT IS THIS MADNESS!  Everything is white and I had no clue it was snowing!  This may seem really obvious, I mean I knew that snow doesn’t make sound as it falls, but the difference between intellectually knowing something and finally living it is quite shocking.  I’ve finally learned the sound of snowplows and when I hear it before I look out the window I know what that means. 
  2. Snow looks really fake.  You know those spray-flocked Christmas trees that were all the rage in the 70s and 80s?  They looked so fake, right?  Well, I’ve seen snow clumped on evergreens that looks exactly like that!  It boggled my mind. 
  3. Not all snow can be used to make snowmen.  You cannot make a snowman just because there is snow.  If you have dry, fluffy snow you’d have better luck trying to make a snowman out of flour.  Dry fluffy snow is good for skiing and snow angels, but for snowball fights and snowmen (or women) you need wet snow, so that it sticks to itself. 
  4. Snow is messy.  After scraping snow off my car or shoveling the walk, I come in the house and I am covered in snow.  It sticks to everything.  It doesn’t dust off, it has to melt off.  And if you walk through your house without shedding your outer layers and shoes you will leave a trail of wet everywhere.  Really fun.  Not to mention that the stuff that road crews put on the road makes your car really disgusting.  All that road salt gets mixed in with the snow and melt, and gets thrown into the air and before you know it your car looks like it’s been spray painted white from the bottom up.
  5. You will drive in it.  Without chains or snow tires.  When you live in a place that snows every year, the road crews do a pretty decent job clearing the streets and highways.  They have trucks with snow blades that push the snow off the road, and brine mixtures and salt to help the snow melt.  In fact, most of the winter driving is a lot like driving the rest of the year.  Just colder.  When the streets haven’t been cleared it’s a mess, but then you drive slow, or stay home, and the thing you really learn to fear is ice.
  6. It can be TOO COLD to snow.  I thought my husband was kidding when he told me this, but I’ve come to find it can in fact be the case.  Snow happens when the temperatures are below freezing (usually) but happens less often as the temperatures get down even lower, like down towards zero.  As the skies clear after snowstorms, the insulation of clouds disappears and the temperatures drop.  Note that I am in no way a meteorologist, so this is likely not precise, but believe me, when it’s really cold it’s less likely to be snowing.
  7. Snow is dirty.  The snow as it falls is all soft and pretty… and after it’s been trampled in and driven on and shoveled in a parking lot and pooed on by squirrels… it’s so filthy you just can’t even imagine.  Yuck.
  8. After the snow melts is even dirtier.  All the trash that accumulates over the course of winter comes to light in spring and it is disgusting!  People toss trash in snow like it’s a giant trash dumpster, and it goes … nowhere!  So once the snow melts the side of the road looks like it’s a snowfall of trash. 

Pretty, huh?  Just wait...
So there you go, people of the sun, the fun facts about snow that those people who live in it have no clue you don’t know anything about.  My husband still laughs when I tell him these things with wide eyes, but he had no clue about earthquakes, so I think we’re pretty even.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Art as spiritual exercise

Yesterday, March 17, I gave half of the sermon at my church, Unitarian Universalist of Indianapolis.  What follows is the text (more or less) of my sermon.

"Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece."
- Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists

When my first husband and I were getting married, we went to couples counseling.  Since I was planning to keep a Jewish household without converting to Judaism, the rabbi asked me what I considered to be MY religion.  I was raised Catholic, but I had long since abandoned the church.  Before I could form a reply, my fiancĂ©e jumped in and said, "Art.  Her religion is ART."  I was surprised, but as I thought about it I realized it was true.  If one's faith is the search for connection with the ineffable, the sublime, the infinite, then that well describes my relationship with art, even before I articulated my desire to be an artist, at the age of 15, after seeing an exhibition of Leonardo daVinci's notebooks.  As early as I can recall I loved art, worshipped at the altar of art.

This congregation claims many artists as members.  Painters.  Writers.  Potters.  Knitters.  Actors.  Photographers.  Dancers.  Sculptors.  Musicians.  All variations of MAKERS.  I haven't done a formal poll, but I'm sure we have representation in more art forms than I can name today.  And though most of us may not think of it as our "religion", maybe we should. 

That claim, of art as religion, begs the question "What is art?"  For many people, there are rigid standards and definitions.  A Catholic standard, so to speak, and if a particular form of expression or medium doesn't meet up to all the qualifications, it is OUT.  Auf Wiedersehen

Where do you stand?  Is abstract art out and representational is in?  Or is abstract in but performance is out?  Is performance okay but functional or craft media like yarn or clay is out?  Is craft in but graffiti is OUT?  Or is all "art" a waste of time and a scam, and everyone should just collect comic books...?  Certainly there are as many viewpoints on art as there are religious sects, and the arguments over a definition can be just as bitter as the Crusades. 

Me, I subscribe to a very Unitarian Universalist viewpoint of art.  I don't decide what IS or IS NOT art.  If the maker or the viewer feels comfortable with calling something art, I consider that a valid statement.  I approach each piece of art on it's own merits, not how it adheres to the art standard.  I may not consider it great art, or even particularly GOOD art, but art is what we individually see as art.  Isn't that the UU view of religion, of the search for the sublime?  Every path to spirituality is valid, is to be respected and encouraged?  That all those paths bring us to a similar destination, even if we call it different names?

This past week another artist told me that most of the artists she knows and has known, over a multi-decade career in the arts across three continents, are not strongly religious, and many are staunchly non-religious.  She asserted the belief that where religious people pray to the divine, or meditate... artists make art. 

Like prayer, art is a way of connecting to the ineffable, to the spirit which moves within us all, which speaks in the language which has no words.  But where others speak to their gods, artists listen.  Where prayers ask, art answers. 

Artists may call it by different names.  Being in the groove. Being on a roll, listening to the muse.  When the words, colors, forms, stitches, notes, images pour out of you like water, like a swollen river, like high tide.  It's a heady feeling, and a beautiful one.

Skill, craftsmanship, media: these are merely the tools of the artist.  Do not be confused,  tools are not the art, only the vehicle.  Art happens not because the artist can turn a witty phrase of make paint take on the appearance of light.  Art happens when the artist reaches into the spirit moving within each of us and shares a fragment of it with the world, makes a bit of the ineffable tangible, whether in paint, prose, stone, dance, sound, yarn...

The most important factor is the art, the risk the artist takes in making something without always knowing how it will work out.  here we all, so many artists, right here.  And not one of us is Michelangelo, Mozart, Picasso, Hemingway.  We know we will never be those people.  But knowing this doesn't dissuade us.  None of us say, "Well, drat!  I can't ever compete with the art of those people, I should just give up painting and collect stamps!"

No.  Because art isn't a competition.  Last week I offered to teach Suzanne how to knit.  She told Jamie who said he was planning to learn it as well, and that the knitting group had also made him the same offer.  They began to banter about how each would out-knit the other, that they would see who could learn faster, who would KNIT faster.  I found myself calling after them "You can't make knitting into a competition, that's like... like ... competitive meditation!"

Seriously, do you do that?  Do you sit in an ashram and think "I am SO much better at mindlessness than that guy!  He is totally not getting it.  Poor dude.  Wait, I'm having thoughts!  I'm not doing it right.  Arg!"

So what is art?  Is it an object?  A picture?  A piece of music or storytelling?  The artist, the maker, defines the art.  The creator decides what the purpose, the spirit, is, not the public.  Perhaps you don't write or paint.  Perhaps you cook for your family.  Perhaps you knit hats for the poor and needy.  Perhaps you teach children how to read.  Are those art?  You are the one who decides.  You are the one who does it as a connection to the divine.  It is your creation.

This church, it's nothing but a building.  A building with people in it.  But just as the purpose of a cup is to hold the tea, the purpose of a sweater is to hold a person, this church is not the building, but the community we create together.

the magic yarn ball, ready to knit.  It took a lot of time to untangle!
I have an art project I'd like to make with everyone.  You may have noticed the yarn on your seats as you entered the sanctuary.  I'd like you to take your yarn and tie one end to your neighbors' yarn, one end to one end.  Please don't make a loop.  We are going to make one long piece of yarn, and we will wind it into a ball.  A magic ball.  A ball of yarn which surprises the knitter as each new piece of yarn comes into view.  This yarn that we are making will be knit into something: a blanket, or a wall-hanging for our church.  It will be here in the sanctuary each service until it is complete, and if you wish to knit on it, one stitch or many, I encourage you to do so.  Like our congregation, it will be a communal effort, a representation of our community, of the threads that singly are sparse, but together can be beautiful, can warm someone, can bring a smile or a memory.  Knitting is a simple thing, just making loops with a piece of string.  It's not the skill that is important, but the intention of the maker, or makers.  As we create a blanket, so we create our community, one stitch at a time, one connection at a time.

Like a meditation, art is a connection.  When the viewer connects to the spirit that moved in the artist then the art has come full circle.  It has fulfilled its purpose.  Let us all be artists.  Let us look within, and make art.  As a prayer, as a mitzvah, a blessing, a meditation.    Look at art as the connection, see the ineffable, the spiritual, the divine, that lives and flows within and through us all.  Share here, and everywhere.  Make your art.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

I know, the last thing I need to do is start another blog, but I realized that I had things I wanted to write that wouldn't really fit with the previous two blogs I had authored.  One was really meant as a family blog, not for public consumption, and the other was more about what I was making, not what I was thinking. 

So this is the thinking blog, and it will include things I am making and things about my family, but really it will be about the things I am thinking.  Which, as one smart-ass friend pointed out, is rather like a jar full of bees.  And like bees, if it gets shaken up too much it might get a little crazy and dangerous, but ... you're all brave, right?

So, about myself.  My name is Cara, and I have one amazing husband (and one not so amazing ex-husband), two children (who I call Pinky and The Brain), a house, a minivan, a yard with low-maintenance plants, two degrees in Fine Art, and a pair of steel-toe boots I live in most of the year. I was born in South Texas, grew up in West Los Angeles, lived in San Francisco, London, New Orleans, Seattle, San Diego, and now ... Indiana. My husband is an artist from Philadelphia, and so neither of us feel like we belong here, but as long as we're together we're home. Even if it does snow here.

I make ceramic art for a career, sometimes pots and sometimes sculptures, and my hobby is fibers.  I knit, spin yarn, and I'm learning to crochet.  Sometimes I write. As a child I was taught to sew by my grandmother, Mimi, and her friend Lilly, who was a professional seamstress.   My mother wasn't crafty, but she taught me to love art and books, to respect people, and to be a feminist and feminine at the same time.  She's my hero.

So there's a lot of bees in here, let's see where it takes us.